Keeping Yourself Motivated

When you are first starting your comedy career, there will be a lot of ups and downs.  You will be working one week and may not work again for another two weeks or so.  This can have a negative effect on comedians, especially those that suffer from other mental health issues.  Let’s go over some ways to keep you motivated when the downs happen.

Be around comedy  What happens with comedians sometimes is they will only come out to perform when they are getting compensated.  This may work for the upper levels of comedians that are booked virtually all year, but if you are just starting or beginning to get paid, coming out to comedy shows and the like can be a great boon for your career and your mind!  When you are seen out at open mics and shows, it lets the people in the local area know that you are still pursuing comedy, and that increases your chances of getting booked.  If you have a local club and you are always going in to check out the shows, the management there will know that you are around and that opens the door for being put on shows.

Let them know you are looking for work  Look at the months coming up.  If you don’t have anything lined up, then start contacting those you know to see if you can be apart of a show.  This doesn’t mean just the normal format of show.  There are all kinds of special shows going on where you may smoke weed after your set and get back up, or drink and argue with other comedians.  These shows have the benefit of having a lot of other comedians there and networking with them can benefit you when you have another dry stretch.  If you have worked at clubs or know of bookers that are booking rooms, make sure you send them those dates that you are open.  Keep it up and that can help close a lot of those holes in your schedule.

Networking  This is kind of a combination of the first two steps above.  Go to your local club and rub elbows or butts or whatever with the other comedians.  Comedy is a very small community.  Knowing enough people can keep you busy!  You don’t have to kiss ass or anything either.  You can just approach comedians after the show and introduce yourself.  It helps even more if you are on a show together.  That way they can vouch for you.

Keep writing  I see this so much.  A comedian will start getting a little bit of work and then they stop really writing material and then the work dries up and they are left scratching their head as to why that may be the case.  Your one weapon to keep you relevant is your material.  If you only have twenty minutes and you have performed at your local club they can’t really use you as much as the person that has a bucket full of jokes to pull from.  I think one of the worst things someone can say about a comedian is, “I heard all that last time they were here.”.  If you keep working you will keep working.

Engage in other creative endeavors   The worst thing to do when the shows slow down is to stop being creative.  Just maintaining yourself in creative task can jolt you out of a slump and keep your mind on task.  I like to write and take photographs so I will write a couple of sketches or go out and photograph some stuff, anything to keep my mind working and that usually keeps jokes coming to me and keeps me out and about.

Don’t let it define your worth  This is an important one.  When I first started out, if I had a couple weeks of no work I would let it get to me big time.  My mind would just go nuts and I would assume that it meant I wasn’t funny if I wasn’t getting work.  That is usually not the case for most comedians.  Sometimes it is just a matter of the ones that are better at networking will get the work.  It took me many years to realize that having jokes and sitting in your house are not how you get work as a comedian.  I still have a ways to go, but I am not so down in the dumps because I haven’t had a working weekend in three weeks.  I see that and I hit the pavement.  When you are feeling down about your comedy is when you should strive to fix it.

I hope this helps.  Being motivated is one of the ways to turn comedy from a part time job into a career.

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Ways to Conquer Your Stage Fright

Public speaking is a fear a lot of people have, even extremely funny ones.  With this article, I will try to help you get over your fear and at least try your hand at comedy.  I myself had a tremendous fear of getting up in front of people.  I hated being called on in class (it didn’t help that I stuttered until the fourth grade), and when I was in the military, it was actually comedy that helped me deliver my presentations in front of my peers.  When I started performing, it was debilitating.  Once I was opening for this guy at Oregon State University, and when I looked out at this sea of people, I seriously thought about giving it up.  I was about to go outside and call the promoter and tell him I was done with comedy, but something told me to do it and I did.

Memorize your material- This is important.  Remembering what you want to talk about can calm your nerves.  We are afraid of the things we don’t know and what we can not control.  The one thing that you can control is knowing your material.  That way you won’t have to fumble with papers or your phone.  When you have the confidence that you at least know what you are going to talk about, it can steady you before you get on stage.

Give it time- If you have your material in your head ready to go, then when your name is called take a deep breath and when you are on that stage, give yourself a second or two to take in your new environment.  That couple of seconds can give your mind the time to see that it isn’t that bad!  Take those couple of seconds to take a couple of breaths and get ready to perform.  Most crowds want you to be funny, they don’t want to have wasted their evening listening to terrible comedy, so you have that advantage.  Now that you are centered and you have let the room in, start crushing.

Use more of the stage-  Pacing can help you redirect those nerves somewhere else.  When you get on stage and you need your notes, put them somewhere that you have to go to.  For instance:  put them on the bar stool and make sure the bar stool is a couple of steps so you can pace and keep your notes within reading range.  Now you can pace and work off the nerves that are built up and your notes are there in case you need them.  If you have your material memorized then use the stage as the nerves hit to keep it from messing with what you are trying to do on stage.

Eyes and hands-  Comics that are afraid will sometime grab the mic stand as an anchor.  That mic stand works as like an antenna and it can alert the entire audience to your predicament.  Comics who are comfortable on stage and are using it as more of a cane have a different posture than someone that is wringing the hell out of it because they are scared out of their minds.  I would suggest against keeping the mic in the stand unless it helps you use both of your hands. Noise can travel through the mic stand so if you are holding on to it for dear life, everyone in the room can hear it.  Put that other hand in your pocket or talk with it.  It’s a bit harder to see your nerves if you have your hand in your pocket or you are using it to add flourishes to your performance.  What I used to do for years to help with my nerves was I would not look at anyone in the audience.  I had my material memorized and I went up and reacted to the laughs.  I would look at empty seats or look right past people. It really helped me get a hold of what I was doing on stage.

Start easy-  An almost sure fire way to settle those nerves is to get the room laughing when you get up.  Start off with a nice, even keeled joke to get the crowd on your side.  If you start by antagonizing the audience it will not help get those nerves down because you know the crowd isn’t hoping you make them laugh anymore.  This is especially true at open mics where the audience doesn’t care as much about your well being.  They just want to laugh.

I hope these steps help you.  They may not work for everyone but there is something there for at least someone.  I would advise against drinking or drugs to calm your nerves.  Now, taking a shot may help calm your nerves, but too much could make you more sloppy on stage.  I knew a guy that could not go on stage without at least a buzz going.  The problem is he didn’t have it down to a science so sometimes he would be drunk as hell when he got up there!  He would antagonize the audience and they hated him.  He would get sober and then feel bad about his sets.  Once he stopped doing that (as much), you could see the real comedian come out of him.  I would also advise against bringing a whole group of friends and family because that is like a drug in itself.  Your family will laugh at anything you say because they want the best for you (unless your family is terrible).  That will give you an inflated sense of what you can do on stage and as soon as they stop coming out (because they will eventually) all it will take is one bad show to strip away that confidence you had built up.  It is best to develop that stage confidence slowly to the point where a bad show won’t cause you to stop doing comedy.  I hope these tips helped.  Thanks for reading!

Controlling an Audience

Controlling an audience is one of the key things a comedian has to do in able to be successful on stage.  Controlling, in the way we are going to be using the word, means to get and maintain the attention of the audience.  You would think this is very simple, but it is a skill that many comedians do not pick up. The best comedians on earth all possess this ability to more or less keep every audience member transfixed on them.  We will talk about a couple of ways comedians keep the audience listening.

I am of the belief that you, as the performer, should not have to tell the audience to pay attention.  You are the performer, not a grade school teacher.  On the other hand, I think it is up to bar staff and especially the MC to set a list of guidelines before the show starts.  The MC should be making sure that they have wrangled any rowdy tables and has gotten the entire room on the same page.  That is why you have the MC!  They go up and deal with the headaches and put out the fires so the show can go smoothly once she steps off stage.  Now, that isn’t to say every MC is good at doing this.  I have performed with Hosts that will invite talking, but never tell the audience that the rest of the comedians may not be into that.

So, you are now on stage.  How do you control the crowd?  Well, it seems simple, but you would be surprised by how many comedians can not get an audience that paid to see them quiet.  Some comedians have never really done loud and hostile environments like sports bars or a room that is just generally disinterested, so when the audience isn’t paying attention or into what they are doing, they tend to strike out at the audience and things only get worse from there.  A tried and true technique is to tell the audience to give it up for the host or the previous comedian.  The audience will start clapping and that gives you enough time to do a couple of things (if you weren’t paying attention earlier).  First, you can scout real quick and see the tables or places in the room that are being disruptive to the show.  If they are in the back of the room, sometimes it is best to let them be if you can’t pull them in with the people that are paying attention.  Why?  Because if you focus your time on them then you are ignoring the people that are paying attention and that can lead to a room of folks not liking you.  Second, if you don’t have a planned first joke, it gives you time to throw out something that will instantly get the crowd on your side.  I have seen everything from a quick one-liner to a quick call back to a previous joke.  This is to get them focused on your performance.

Another method is to just get up and with your voice get the room’s attention.  Nothing says you are now performing like getting the mic really close to your face and filling the room with your voice.  This may not work for you though if the rest of your set is you being meek up on stage.  You can also start with a strong joke that will immediately get the crowd listening to what else you have to say.  It could also be that your mere presence makes the audience want to hear what you are talking about.   If you are a white person in a room filled with people of color, they may just listen long enough to see if you are going to make them laugh.  This will be your chance to get them on your side.  If you are a comedian of color, and the room is mostly white, getting on stage and immediately saying the n-word may not be a good thing.  I am not saying don’t do your act, but if you are trying to make sure the room is paying attention you want them to be on your side long enough for them to follow you down any nook and cranny you wish.

Some comedians are just gifted.  They can get on stage and within twenty seconds have the audience eating out the palm of their hands.  Not all of us have that ability, so I hope the tips above will give you a little bit of an edge the next time you are trying to get the room under control.  Make sure you are not screaming at the audience to shut up and things of that nature.  That isn’t your job.  Get the staff or security to handle that.  If you have to keep everyone in check then you should be getting paid for comedy as well as security.  If nothing else is working just find that one table or group that is paying attention and play to them.  Guess what?  Most of the time, if you get a group paying attention to you they will tell the rest of the room to shut up and listen!  I think next time we will talk about when we as comedians should be the bad guy on stage.

Why It’s Hard To Break Into Comedy Clubs (For Some)

I hope everyone had a happy New Years.  Now it is time to get back at it.  With this one let’s talk about the difficulties of getting booked into comedy clubs.

If you think about it, comedy clubs are very unique.  Comedy is the one of the few performing arts that basically has its own space.  There is not a ballet bar, or a poem emporium.  This obviously means that if you want to ply your trade in stand-up this is one of the first places you would look. You would think it would be as simple as emailing the person who books talent at the club and if they see a use for you, then you are good to go.  Well, it is not that easy.  Let us talk about the simple fact that there is only so many comedy clubs in the country.  Sure some cities like Chicago and New York City have several, but a lot of places may have just one club, and that one club has between 48 to 52 weekends (depending on things like when holidays fall and such) in which to fill.  Most comedy shows have a MC, feature, and headliner.  So at most, a club needs three comedians a weekend.  Now I hope you see that there are a ton of people that have the capacity to fill these spots, so that makes comedy clubs sort of a gate keeper.  If they want to have people return, they want to put on the best show they can afford.  That means they have to be a little more picky then say the sardine factory that just needs to fill five canning positions.

Now the above tries to explain why its hard to get booked into comedy clubs on just a numbers aspect.  The thing is you have another hurdle, the booker.  There are men and women all across this country that book these shows and because they are human and have particular tastes, they will make decisions for a variety of reasons.  I have heard them all.  From just not that funny to you live too far away and we don’t want to house you.  Also because they are human, they are not immune from just grabbing what is nearby.  Why book a comedian for a show in Atlanta when they live in Portland?  Why not just look in your immediate vicinity.  Especially for features because there are a ton of people that can perform between 20-30 minutes of comedy.  It is less stress to know that most of your talent is in town.  That is why it is really hard to get booked as a MC or feature the farther away you look.  They can just grab a local comedian to MC and save money and hassle.  They don’t have to worry about comics changing their minds at the last minute because they can’t afford to come perform.  You also have to think about the booker and the amount of inquiries they receive on a day to day basis.  I can only imagine all the emails and packages they get from comedians that want to work their club.  They can’t possibly get to it all.  If you receive 200 emails a day, it will get to a point where you will ignore a ton of emails and base your decisions on what your peers are telling you.  Then there is just plain ole biases.  They may not like musical comedians, or comedians that wear hats on stage.  They won’t tell you this outright, but it could keep your from getting work from them.

Here is another thing.  Comedy clubs are businesses.  They are not non profits that are putting on comedy shows for the good of the community.  They are trying to get the audience to buy food and alcohol, and your quips about Tupperware is what is keeping them there.  These clubs are looking for people that can put asses in seats.  It is not so much how funny you can be, but an as of now undiscovered equation between funny and popular.  Why do you think your local club has that former porn star coming to town next week?  Because they are popular enough, and sometimes funny enough, to put asses in seats and make the club some money.  If you can’t offer them that, then it is hard to break in.  This is not so much a concern of MCs and feature acts because they are seen as younger, less experienced comedians, but headliners have to worry about this a lot.

So, how can you increase your chances you may ask.  Well, the thing you have to remember is persistence. You have to be able to accept that you will get turned down a lot and keep trying to get in contact with these clubs.  You will send out hundreds of emails and you may get one response back.  It’s important to know that you can not guess what is going on on the other side of email.  The booker may be ignoring emails.  They may be seeing it and not responding because you do not fit their place.  I will say this, if you got a response and they say no, then you should not keep sending them emails.  Accept the no and when you have a new headshot or new video for them to take a look at, then you should probably give it another try.  If they say contact again in six months, then do that. I have an spreadsheet (I know!) where I can check off who I have contacted and if they responded to me.  I don’t use it as much as I should, but it is helpful in keeping track.  You can also hit up the club’s open mic.  This is a great way of getting in front of people that can get your booked.  Don’t see it as a guarantee that the booker will be there though.  If I can get there, I like to do that because networking and getting to know bookers and what they are looking for is a great way to improve your chances of getting work in the future.  You can also try booking independent shows in clubs during off nights.  Some clubs will let you rent their spot on a night where they are not doing a proper show and you can show them that you have enough pull in the area to be brought back for a weekend.  You can also try this with a specialty show.  We have a show in Spokane called Drink N Debate, and it is put on at the Spokane Comedy Club every month.  The bookers get to see a lot of comedians and can evaluate them for potential work.

The key is being persistent and remembering that it is an uphill battle, but one you will have to go through if you are trying to get into comedy clubs.

 

Big Idea Comedy Vs. Small Idea Comedy

For lack of better terms, I tend to look at comedy in two very broad terms, that can be elaborated on later.  Big ideas and small ideas.

Big idea comedy, at least in the way that I think of it, are premises that try to tackle the big issues in our society.  Poverty, inequality, women’s issues, race, are what I would call Big ideas.  These are things that people have an idea about, but may not have thought of them in a comedic way.  I think a lot of comedians start out writing material with these ideas in mind. Why?  Because it can be easier to grasp for both the comedian and the audience.  We have been confronted with most of these ideas, so there is not much set up required.  As soon as you start going into the bit, everyone more or less has an understanding of the topic at hand.  This does not mean it is easy. On the contrary, big idea comedy writing is usually the hardest to write effectively.  There is a reason they are ideas that still linger in our society, and there are many different ways to fail an idea you are trying to get out to the audience.  I have sat at hundreds of open mics where the person wants to say something witty about these issues, but instead comes off as offensive or tone deaf.  If that is the idea then, to make it seem as though you have no idea what is going on, then exaggeration is your friend.

Newer comedians tend to want to go  after these topics for another reason, they have seen their favorite comedians knock these topics out of the park.  The problem is that we tend to not see the work that is involved with crafting a joke so it seems easy when in actuality it is quite difficult.  So, how would I advise a new comedian to go after these big ideas?  I wouldn’t.  I would tell them to go after things that others can’t duplicate (this is where small idea comedy comes in).  If they really want to though, I would tell them that saying the same thing that every comedian in the world is already saying is not a good way to differentiate yourself from the masses.  That is why blue collar comedy is what it is.  It says something completely different from what hundreds of other comedians are saying.

Small idea comedy may sound like the opposite, and you would be partly right.  Small ideas, as I am writing them, are things that are happening to you directly.  It is not as big as race relations, but it can be, just as long as it is happening to you.  This seems to be how a lot of comedians progress as they get more comfortable with the way they write. They start off talking about really heavy ideas, and then they look within their own lives to find humor.  To a lot of newer comedians, this seems daunting.  You may be young and thing the things that are happening to you directly would not be funny, but have you sat down and thought about it?  Have you taken time to assess situations in your life that could be funny?  When you start thinking about comedy differently, you start to realize that you can find a lot of good material in smaller ideas.  How does going out in public make you feel?  Do you hate your in-laws?  These are things that do not affect the lives of many, but can still be funny.

How can you get to these small ideas and write effective material about them?  First, think about the things that bother you.  The things that make you laugh.  These are things that a lot of other people may find weird enough to laugh at.  Some of the greatest comedians ever made their names from looking within and being able to articulate it in ways that made others laugh.  What is great about this material is because it is more personal, it is harder for others to duplicate.  This is the material that audiences will remember you for.  Do you have funny stories?  That is small idea comedy!

I hope I was able to get these idea across in an effective manner.  If not please let me know in the comments.  While you are at it, go here to pick up the new book from my friend Andrew Oullette.  Thanks!

Take Charge of The Stage!

The stage is a comedian’s workplace, and territory.  When you are on stage, it should be clear that it is time for a show and you are going to give one to the crowd. Here are some ways you can better take charge on stage.

Look at them! Unless your act requires it, you should be up there looking at the audience.  When I first started, I could not stand to look at them judge me.  What I started doing instead was looking just above eye level.  That way the audience thinks you are looking at them, but you aren’t.  Just staring ahead at the first couple of rows isn’t enough.  You have to look at all of the audience!  Try to connect with everyone in the crowd.  It let’s them know you are not only going to tell them jokes, but connect with them while they laugh.

Look comfortable.  You have to look as though you are in front of a group of friends.  If you are nervous, don’t alert the crowd to that fact (unless it is a part of your act of course).  If your hands shake really bad when you are nervous, place one in your pocket or keep the mic in the mic stand in front of you.  Starting out, I would get so nervous I would get sick.  So, I started out telling a couple of smaller, warm up jokes that would get the crowd laughing and in turn, would calm my nerves.  If your knees get a little wobbly, try pacing a little on stage.  This will get you moving so the audience can’t see how nervous you are and that may help you calm down sooner.

Memorize your material. You don’t look like you are so sure of your stuff if you are constantly looking at the stool.  During an open mic or something, looking at notes is cool because that is what an open mic is for.  Looking at your notes at a paid show looks like you didn’t bother to prepare, and keeps you from physically moving away from your notes.  There are comedians that can bring notes on stage and not make it known that they do.  If you must take notes with you, then you may have to get inventive.  Trying taping it to the side of your water bottle or glass.  Then when you take a drink, you can sneak a peek.  You can also try writing it on the inside of your arm.  Don’t write on your palms because it is much more noticeable to the audience.

Ignore distractions! Part of being an effective comedian is knowing when you should and should not interact with things off stage.  Some things can not be helped.  If someone is getting thrown out of the bar, you have to address it so as to get the attention back on you.  A lot of comedians with not a lot of stage time will want to point out every thing that is happening in the room.  This can throw the show off course and make it seem as though you are easily distracted.  If a glass drops, the audience knows that.  Unless you have a really good joke, just let it be and keep on with your act. Sometimes the audience is the distraction.  Hecklers should be shut down, but you have to analyze the situation and see if it is needed.  Sometimes the best way to deal with a heckler is to ignore them.  If an audience member is responding to you material, sometimes not saying anything back is the best way to keep it from messing with your ongoing show.  If it can not be helped make sure let them know that you heard them.  If this does nothing then your standard heckler response may be needed.  I always advise comedians not to go to hard on a heckler at first because you don’t want the audience to think you are the asshole.  Most audience members want the person talking to shut up, so all you have to do is make it clear that it will not be tolerated.  This will show that you are in charge, and this is your show.  Do not let the inmates run the asylum!

I hope this helps those that have been having trouble getting that edge on stage.  I think these tips will help you get that crowd listening to your dick jokes.

How to Take Advice/Constructive Criticism

Comedians get and give advice all the time.  It is constantly a learning process, and not one person knows everything about comedy.  How you take advice and/or criticism is important if you want to grow.

Advice can come in many forms, but no matter how you get it make sure you understand the source.  I am not saying that only famous people can give advice because a lot of the time it was just blind luck that got them famous!  You have to weight what advice from a certain sources means to you.  I am nowhere near famous, and I have dispensed advice on this blog for three years now.  You reading this are the only ones that will know if what I say applies to you and your career.  If you are headlining clubs every weekend you have no business here.  I will add hardly anything to your overall understanding of the comedy industry.  If you’re an open mic comedian, that is trying to move up the ladder, then maybe you can get something from all of these scribbles.  There is also nothing saying you can’t take bits and pieces of advice and make it something that can help you grow.  If someone tells you, “You need to get on stage more and face the crowd.”, but the persona you are building on stage is one that is stand offish to the audience, then maybe just take “You need to get on stage more.” and leave the rest to the winds.

Criticism is hard for any entertainer.  Who wants to know that you are not making 100% of people laugh? I have been doing this for twelve years, and I still get down whenever I hear someone tell me that.  I will tell you the same thing I told you in the paragraph above:  understand the source! Criticism coming from a drunk person may not be the same as it is coming from your buddy.  Is this person just trying to hurt your feelings?  That is something else to take into account.  I am not saying that anyone that has a criticism about you is a hater, but listen to the criticism.  Is it constructive?  Does it give you a starting point in which you can improve, or is it just tearing you down just for the sake of it? Constructive criticism is almost always trying to negate negativity by instilling a positive aspect. Here is an example:  Someone comes to you after a performance, and says, “I think you should shed some details in your stories.  The end is funny, but it takes to long to get there.” They are telling you that the stories you are telling on stage are too long, but they are giving you a way to change it.  If they approached you and just said, “Your stories suck.” you just have the negative and no way of changing anything for the better.  You also have to understand that there is no way 100% of people are going to find what you do funny.  You are not looking for 100% anyway.  You are looking for enough people that will fill up a room.  I am not saying don’t try to make the person that doesn’t like you laugh, but don’t kill yourself trying to do it.

It is important to note that not all advice and not all criticism is good.  I once had someone after a show tell me, “What you need to do is get on Comedy Central!”  That is advice, but I can not do anything with that!  I had someone just a couple of hours ago say they have never liked my material (the inspiration for this post), until recently.  That’s all they said.  That is criticism, but since they gave me nothing else to go off of, there is nothing I can do to see if it is something I can fix.  There is nothing wrong with going head first with our vision of what you want to do on stage.  The thing is, we are trying to entertain others, and if we are not trying to do the best we can to do that, then we are just amusing our need to be the center of attention when we are on stage.